Monica Sok never stops working. Though we didn’t share any classes together during our overlapping year at the NYU Creative Writing Program, I knew enough about her poems not to miss Year Zero, her debut publication and winner of the Poetry Society of America 2015 Chapbook Fellowship. Written in the shadow of the genocide visited by Pol Pot against two million Cambodians in the 1970s, the book examines inherited trauma and the power that Monica’s family history holds over her these many years later. Monica imagines and gives voice through her poetry to the people who were buried in Killing Fields under the Khmer Rouge’s brutal regime, as well as to those who survived and continue to suffer. And because artists and intellectuals were particularly targeted in the massacre, the book’s mere existence feels all the more significant. Communists tried to stamp out an entire generation of creative thinkers in Cambodia. Sok’s unrelenting empathy, her channeling of the dead, shows that their task was always impossible.
When I spoke with Monica over email about the challenges of writing about trauma, about the language we use to describe violence and how poetry sustains us in difficult times, her kindness and warmth came across immediately. Which is exactly as she’s advertised. Marilyn Chin, judge of the PSA contest, writes in her introduction to Year Zero:
The poet is able to offer quiet wisdom without sentimentality. Ultimately this poet refuses to surrender to victimhood. The chapbook ends optimistically in the borough of Brooklyn, where the young speaker lives happily, sometimes seen in the neighborhood eating bagels with friends and writing new poems. She has found her way to “the healing fields.”
Monica Sok is a Cambodian poet from Lancaster, Pennsylvania. A Kundiman fellow, Sok has received scholarships from Barbara Deming Memorial Fund, Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference, Hedgebrook, MacDowell Colony, and the Elizabeth George Foundation. Her poems have appeared in Narrative, The New Republic, Ninth Letter, The Offing, and TriQuarterly Review, among others. After publishing Year Zero from the healing fields of Brooklyn, she will soon return to Pennsylvania as the 2016-2018 Stadler Fellow at Bucknell University.
The Rumpus: How did Year Zero first take shape? When did you begin writing it?
Monica Sok: Year Zero began taking shape with a poem I began writing four years ago, in Cambodia, actually. I was writing in my aunt’s house in Prek Eng, a village outside of Phnom Penh. I remember thinking back then that I had never tried writing poems directly about Cambodia, the history, the landscape, the culture, the people—things that have always shaped me and my experience. So I began writing the earliest versions of “My Son Kasaul” in a room that my aunt and cousin kept for me in Prek Eng, and I’d work in bed under the mosquito net. At the time, I didn’t know that I would ever put a body of work together and call it a manuscript. And some of these poems also began in Sharon Olds‘s class, Sharon who built this incredibly nourishing space for me and my classmates, where I felt safe enough to engage with the history I was just beginning to write about.
Rumpus: How often do you visit Cambodia?
Sok: I wish I could say that I go every year, but I’ve been to Cambodia a total of four times in my life. My first time there, I was nine or ten years old, and I was seriously enchanted by the banyan sitting on the roof of Ta Prohm Temple, what I name as the Octopus Tree in my poems. I plan to go again in December though. I received a Jerome Foundation travel grant to support my trip to Siem Reap, where I hope to study the history of Angkor Wat, Banteay Srei, Ta Prohm, and Angkor Thom. I read an article in the Guardian that said archaeologists, with lidar technology, discovered entire medieval cities underneath the rainforest floor, with whole water systems in place and everything. So I’m intrigued by what could change our understanding of Southeast Asian history. And I’m hoping this trip will help to deepen my writing.
Rumpus: What’s the most interesting thing you’ve learned about these medieval cities so far?
Sok: Well, I believe right now a team of archaeologists are digging up some sites, so there is still a lot that we haven’t learned yet about the medieval cities. So I think the most interesting thing is the fact that we know about them now… this is exciting to me when I think about it as a metaphor to writing poetry. It makes me wonder what I can also unearth in my writing, how deep I can allow myself to imagine my history, you know?
Rumpus: How much research went into the making of Year Zero? Was it difficult to get your family to open up and share their stories with you? Is the history described in Year Zero mainly gathered from a family oral history, or reading about it on your own?
Sok: The history woven throughout Year Zero is mainly taken from stories I’ve heard from my family or my own experiences in Cambodia, and perhaps only the poem “The Radio Host Goes into Hiding” comes from my own research. While writing some of the poems, I had been watching The Missing Picture by director Rithy Panh, a claymation documentary about survival during the killing fields, and also Don’t Think I’ve Forgotten by John Pirozzi about the glory years of rock and roll in Cambodia. These documentaries, no doubt, helped me deal with several important questions like: how do I write about genocide without perpetuating its brutality? How do I write about the Khmer Rouge… without saying the name Khmer Rouge or even Pol Pot? How do I write a Cambodian narrative without letting the forces of oppression overshadow the lives of Cambodians, including the lives of my family?
As for research, like history books and what not… no I have not heavily relied on them to write my poetry. If I ever pick a history book up, I know it’s not written by somebody who can tell me my history like my father or my mother or my uncles and aunts. I was trying to read Ben Kiernan’s The Pol Pot Regime, and when I got to the chapter on “US Intervention in Cambodia”… it was too much for me. You know, from pages 18-19 in the introduction I couldn’t get past the way this highly acclaimed scholar wrote about violence, and you can see it all in the numbers. Maybe it’s okay for some to read things like “540,000 tons of bombs dropped in the past six months” or “1,835 secret missions by US Special Forces in Cambodia,” and maybe some people can keep reading just the introduction. But I can’t separate the pain I feel toward my history… and the straight-up injustice and violence imposed on Cambodia. The language there hurts me. My history hurts me. I feel like I have to protect myself while reading about my history. I have to ask myself who wrote it, in what gaze, who is this history written for? Is it written for me? I think this is what essentially drove me to poetry.
Rumpus: That idea is so important, asking who wrote the history, and who is it written for. I’m also thinking of Deborah Landau’s Art of the Book class [at NYU]. We once talked about the difficulties of writing about violence. One of the ways it’s difficult is that as poets we naturally want to make language be beautiful, but that can be dangerous because you don’t want to risk beautifying violence too much. Is this something you had to consider in your own work? What was your approach like to writing about violence?
Sok: I think very deeply how language is used when talking about violence. I never want to perpetuate violence through language. So when I write about it… I try to do it in a way that will empower the Cambodian narrative, and most of the time I’m trying to write about love. So maybe how I approach violence lies in the question of how I am also being subversive. I’m being subversive by writing a love poem, by writing about my dad finding his sisters after the war, or my family feeding each other during the Khmer Rouge regime… these are acts of love, which the Khmer Rouge aimed to take way. They had broken up family units, afraid of an organized resistance, they moved men, women, and children around to different camps, so that families would be divided. When my mom talks about her childhood growing up under the KR, she doesn’t really talk about violence… she wants to talk about her father who gave her a sweet potato on his death bed, something that she could have grown to eat and survive. Sometimes she talks about her losses. She lost her oldest brother during that time. The way my mom deals with her past, also informs my work.
Sometimes, I know that I must look at violence straight on and that means looking at a skull or entering Tuol Sleng, it means engaging with what is gone or missing. But writing about violence itself? I don’t know if I can do that really… the language I use in my poems about violence shouldn’t be beautiful but it should try to help me go toward healing. My capacity for language around violence is limited. But I would hope that writing about it also challenges how we think about our history and perhaps complicate our feelings about what we’ve inherited too. Maybe writing poems about violence would also contribute to the ongoing conversation in Cambodia today, in light of the recent murder of Kem Ley, a very important political figure who inspired so many Cambodians to stand up for their rights and principles of freedom and humanity. I know that for my community, looking at violence is hard to do. We don’t always want to look back at the past or think about it, so I want to be mindful of the way we heal differently too.
Rumpus: Do you think you’ll return to the subject matter again through poetry, or potentially in other forms?
Sok: I’ll never be done writing about the Killing Fields. I know for a fact that I’m going to return to it again and again and again in my work. One of the poems in the chapbook “Tuol Sleng” is already a totally different poem, much longer, a closer look at Tuol Sleng itself. Lately, I’ve been trying to write short stories and I’m pushing myself to turn this one particular failed poem into a story. It expands the ghazal “Prey Veng.” I feel like I’m freeing the narrative in that way, and I’m excited about it. I’m interested in writing essays too. But right now, my poetry seems to want to expand through long forms, so I think I have the right instinct try my hand at fiction.
Rumpus: One of the moments that keeps coming back to me in your book, is in the poem “Cambodian // American” when a girl falls on the train: her head a bowling ball close to my foot / her head a bowling ball that rolled on the floor. I think what makes it so chilling, and memorable for me, is that comparing a head to bowling ball is something that could just be a way of comparison, or a poetic device, but then to think that one’s head could literally roll in that manner… And I think this next moment (wanting to cancel class, wanting to cry) is such an elegant way to illustrate how trauma can be triggered or re-awoken unexpectedly.
Sok: I never thought about how chilling that association is, between the head and the image of the bowling ball. It is chilling in other contexts of violence. Perhaps that is what triggers me in the poem, when the girl falls close to where I’m sitting. But she gets back up, she’s okay. As for me, a Cambodian // American woman witnessing her fall, I also understood that her pain was visible to everyone in that car. She fell. People immediately helped her up. They pressed the emergency button. I think on that particular day, I was struggling to cope with my history and how it has shaped my life. I was reading some heavy material about the genocide. I felt like I was falling too except my falling wasn’t physical. So in the poem, “Cambodian // American” there is this feeling of being isolated. Of feeling invisible. Of being marginalized. Of struggling to take care of oneself while dealing with a dark history. And I didn’t have my community around me to catch me. For these reasons, this poem was very hard to let go of in the chapbook. I feel most vulnerable in “Cambodian // American,” but it’s the poem that makes my vulnerability visible. It undoes the silence in a way. My Cambodian // American experience is not marginalized in this poem at all. And while the poem examines the dailiness of my struggle with isolation and my longing for a Cambodian American community… the poem(s) has also helped me find others. I’m happy to say that by now, I’ve met many Cambodians and Cambodian Americans writers who are working toward building a stronger literary movement.
Rumpus: What are the poems or particular lines that sustain you in difficult times? I saw on Facebook today someone quoted Mary Oliver, and I thought it was beautiful: it is a serious thing // just to be alive on this fresh morning / in this broken world. I don’t usually feel very connected to Mary Oliver’s work, but more often I’ll find two or three lines of hers, quoted out of context, to be powerful. So I’m wondering, in the politically terrible climate of this summer, what poems have resonated with you?
Sok: Yes, to be alive is a serious thing, and this summer has been incredibly brutal. When I think about Alton Sterling and Philando Castile, Black Lives Matter, the officers in Dallas, and the queer Latinxs in Orlando, the attacks in Baghdad, Dhaka, Istanbul and most recently Nice, my heart is heavy and has been… the world is too much. A poem I turn to is “Elegy” from Kingdom Animalia by Aracelis Girmay, a poet whom I adore, whose work I certainly turn to during difficult times. I recently heard it read aloud by the beautiful poet Yesenia Montilla on Black Poets Speak Out. The last stanza goes:
Listen to me. I am telling you
a true thing. This is the only kingdom.
The kingdom of touching;
the touches of the disappearing, things.
This poem sustains me; it makes me confront this truth that our living is not guaranteed, as Girmay suggests in the epigraph. We have to ask ourselves what do we do knowing this? In the midst of all this violence and police brutality though, I turn to Girmay also because she reminds me of love and sometimes the joyful revelation of love like in the poem “Loisfoeribari“ in Teeth, where she is trying to figure out what her third grade student Estefani Lora means by ‘Loisfoeribari’ written on her drawing. Lo is fo er i ba ri. The last lines are a powerful incantation…
love is for everybody
love is for every every body love
love love everybody love
everybody love love
is love everybody
everybody is love
love love for love
for love is everybody
love is forevery
love is forevery body
love love love for body
love body body is love
love is body every body is love
is every love
for every love is love
for love everybody love love
love love for everybody
We all need this poem. It offers the radical notion that “love is for every body.” And hearing this poem out loud gives me goosebumps. So in relation to the poem “Elegy” perhaps the last stanza of “Loisfoeribari” tells us that this is what we do, we transform and push the belief that love. is. for. every. body, and to push this belief we must do more deep listening, just as Girmay does here with her 3rd grade student.
Rumpus: I love Aracelis Girmay’s work so much. I’ve read Black Maria and Kingdom Animalia but not yet Teeth, which is on my list. Thank you for that gorgeous excerpt. And happy birthday! How are you spending the day?
Sok: Thanks girl! I spent my birthday with my friend Sherry hiking around Watkins Glen, fascinated by all the gorges around Ithaca. I had a nice catfish sandwich and blew out candles on a delicious homemade cake with my fellow artists here. I’m also packing my books and things because it’s my last day at Saltonstall. I had a great time during my residency, read some novels and revised several new poems. I found it very helpful for my writing to connect with nature around here and would often jog around the lake or stroll through the arboretum.
Rumpus: How does where you’re living affect your writing? And where do you see yourself living in the next few years? You’ll be at Bucknell soon for a fellowship. Do you have any idea of what comes next?
Sok: I think the places I’ve lived in have all pushed me toward poetry: my isolation in Lancaster, the sterile atmosphere of DC, the liminal spaces I felt in Vietnam and Cambodia because of our intertwined, complex histories, and the artistic freedom I felt in New York City, especially with the community of poets there who have challenged me and inspired me. Without a doubt, my year living in Vietnam and Cambodia had driven me toward poetry, made me commit to it. Often the place I’m living in provides the context for my body to locate myself historically. I think my story would be different if I were a Cambodian American born and raised in Long Beach or Lowell.
But I learned something these past few months on residency. I need to see green and trees, I need to see a body of water to sort of center myself in my work. It helps that I can hear birds sing. It helps me slow down. It also helps me become more vulnerable to my work without interruption, without needing to rush somewhere or feel the need to step out and be taken away by the pulse of city life. It was really hard to slow down in New York City, but I thrived in a different way there being exposed to a lot of writers and their processes… it was easier for me to always be in conversation with poetry. I’ll be in Lewisburg for the Stadler Fellowship at the end of August. I’ll spend two years there and I have no idea what will happen next. I don’t think I’m looking that far ahead, I just feel very lucky to have this fellowship. I will say that I hope to teach in the future. I miss my students. I miss talking to young writers who are figuring out what is important to them. I hope that wherever I’ll be after the Stadler, I’ll be able to connect with a Cambodian American community too… I hope to work toward changing the literary landscape by including more Cambodian American voices. Consequence Magazine is doing a Cambodia feature in their next issue, so that’s a first step for many of us who don’t even know each other; it will help us be in conversation with each other’s work. So far I’ve connected with Cambodian and Cambodian American authors Bunkong Tuon, Sokunthary Svay, Peuo Tuy, Chath pierSath, Yeng Chheangly, Phina So, Princess Moon, and Tararith Kho but I know there must be more of us out there. Mostly I just want to tell young Cambodian Americans that they can dream of being a writer and let them know that their narratives are important, because often times, nobody is telling them that. But I will.